Not available for work much this week because of other commitments. Mid-week, I even came perilously close to having to do some decorating. In the end I just painted a few coloured squares on our bedroom wall from various tester pots (still needed a rest afterwards). It was difficult choosing the right colour so we divided up the decision making effort – I chose the colour I liked and my wife chose the colour we are going to have. Team work! Alas, today I could find no more excuses for getting out of the real thing. This morning, I thought I had a very good reason why it was imperative to go out for a while: “I have to go to the shops dear, I’ve just noticed we have no crème de menthe. The nearest place they sell it is in Nottingham and since its nice out I might as well go in the Sprite……..”. I was subjected to an icy glare as my wife wielded a large screwdriver in a threatening manner. Wishing to avoid an inappropriate and painful insertion of said screwdriver, I decided that decorating wasn’t that bad after all (I hate it, I hate it. And crème de menthe? What was I thinking?? I hate that too). Anyway, in short I only had one job this week:-
Friday: Ford Fiesta 1.5TDCi Style, Chelmsford, Essex to a place with no name, south of Ashford, Kent (could have been called “Middle of Nowhere”).
What a great car the Fiesta is. A teenager on country roads where it is great fun and all grown up and mature on the motorway where it rides like a bigger car. Quite refined too. The 1.5 diesel is impressive and if you prefer petrol power, the 1.0 litre turbo is excellent. And this great car is about to be replaced by a new model! As long as the new Fiesta does not go backwards in any respect then it should knock the competition into a cocked hat. I saw a couple of the new Fiestas at the compound where I picked up the current/outgoing Fiesta that I delivered to Kent. One was a sporty ST and the other an “Active” model which will transform your life to one of non-stop adventure (amazing what the addition of roof rails and a bit of plastic cladding can do). Not entirely sure about the styling of the new model – it looks a tad bloated and indeed, it is a bit bigger than the outgoing Fiesta. It will probably grow on me.
The jaunt in the Fiesta was a case of Kent re-visited because we went to a family wedding near Canterbury just last weekend. The wedding was absolutely wonderful and we also had the opportunity to get re-acquainted with this lovely old town with its famous cathedral. I know, technically it’s a city but it is town-sized and has a friendly and very cosy feel. Great place to wander round. We last went to Canterbury in 2014 and the highlight of that visit was a short but entertaining boat trip on the River Stour in the city centre (Canterbury Historic River Tours – four and a half stars on TripAdvisor!). With our young guide rowing the boat, he still had the energy to give a light-hearted run down of historical facts and information about Canterbury and its many ancient buildings and monuments. Here is a little peek if you have never been:-
This is another one for people who are lazy, less than competent or lacking confidence in the kitchen – or all three. If you haven’t gathered by now, this is the general theme of my cooking posts. Have you ever tried to roast a joint of beef traditionally only for it to turn out a bit dry and less than tender? One of the reasons may not be your lack of cooking skills but rather the absence of fat from your chosen joint. The only time I have really successfully roasted a joint of beef using the tradition method is when I have had a rib joint with thick veins of fat running through it. The fat provides the moisture and keeps the meat tender. However in this low fat era, that may not suit everyone. Or is fat good for you nowadays, now that sugar is deemed to be the ultimate evil? I’m not sure. I can’t keep up with the experts. Everything in moderation, I say.
So, when you see that tempting ultra-lean topside joint of beef sitting on the butcher’s or supermarket meat counter calling out to your anti-fat sensibilities, how would you cook it? Well, why not try “pot roasting” it? That way you get lovely tender meat, ready made gravy and half of your vegetables in one fell swoop! Here’s how:-
Get your joint out of the fridge about 30 minutes before you start cooking to let it come to room temperature.
Season the joint with salt and pepper.
In a hob- and ovenproof casserole dish heat a small amount of oil of your choosing (olive, rapeseed, sunflower, Castrol GTX, whatever). When the oil is hot, pop the joint in and brown on all sides, including the ends. Ideally, you need some substantial weapons with which to manoeuvre and turn the joint. Don’t use your fingers, you will burn them. You would never catch me doing anything so stupid(!).
Turn off the heat and add warm/hot beef stock or a combination of stock and red wine until the level of liquid comes at least halfway up the joint (you can be quite generous with the wine if you wish!).
Chuck in some big chunks of carrot. You choose how many – think about how many people you are going to feed. No namby pamby thin slices, this is going in the oven for a quite a while so you don’t want them to disintegrate.
Put on the casserole’s tight fitting lid and put in the oven, pre-heated to 140/150C (fan). I guess 160-ish C for a conventional oven. Did I mention the casserole dish needs a tight fitting lid? If in doubt, see Tips and Variations below.
The last joint I pot roasted was about 1kg and I left it in the oven for between 2 to 2.5 hours. I did turn it over about half way through just so both sides get a good soak. Obviously for a bigger joint, leave it in a bit longer! If in doubt, slice a little bit off the edge and have a taste. You are allowed to do this, it’s a perk of being the chef.
If you want a hotter oven for your roast potatoes, just take the casserole out of the oven when you think its done and keep the lid on while you cook your roasties.
Just before you are ready to serve, take the beef out of the casserole, put on a warm plate and cover with foil.
Now thicken the gravy. With the casserole on the hob, mix some cornflour with a bit of cold water and add to the gravy. Bring to the boil, stirring all the time and simmer for a couple of minutes (that gets rid of any powdery taste from the cornflour).
That looks like a lot of steps, but really it is dead easy! Brown the meat, add liquid and carrots, put in oven, go for a walk/a drive in Austin-Healey Sprite/mow the lawn/hide in shed, thicken, serve.
You might be thinking what’s the difference between this and a beef casserole cooked in stock or wine? Good question but it definitely is different and more like proper roast beef.
TIPS AND VARIATIONS:
If you don’t have a casserole dish that is hob- and oven proof, then brown the meat in a pan and transfer to a casserole.
If your casserole does not have a tight fitting lid or if it has a vent in the lid, cover the casserole with foil and then put the lid on.
Stock from a cube is fine. In my opinion, made up weaker rather than stronger.
One day I may try using a bit of beer (bitter/ale, not lager) instead of wine. If you do that before me, please let me know what it is like.
I mentioned that this method gives you half your veg (assuming you want more than just carrots with your roast dinner). However, you could add some frozen peas just before you bring the gravy back to the boil or add tinned beans such as borlotti or cannellini beans when simmering. Strangely, I have never done this myself and am now wondering why not.
Depending on the size of your casserole dish, you may end up with a lot of gravy. This is a good thing. Freeze the leftovers for when you next have bangers and mash.
Another short working week with bank holiday Monday and off to Kent on Friday for a family wedding:-
Tuesday: Ford Transit Connect, Ashby-de-la-Zouch to Brentford; Ford Transit 350 Dropside, Redhill, Surrey to Old Dalby, Leicestershire.
Wednesday: Toyota Auris Estate 1.6D Business Edition, Burton-on-Trent to Bedford.
Thursday: Toyota Avensis 1.6D Estate Business Edition, Burton-on-Trent to Sheffield.
The two Toyotas were delivered to a government agency but I can’t tell you which one or I would have to kill you afterwards. Good to know HM Government has a Toyota Avensis and Auris to aid the fight against the forces of evil. Both cars had satnav so they should be able to find the baddies more easily. The bigger Avensis felt a bit lazy with the 1.6 engine but impressively refined. It was the other way round with the Auris, a little bit peppier but more engine and road noise. All what you would expect really.
Tuesday was a long day – 7.00am to 10pm. After dropping off the Transit Connects we had about a four hour wait before we could leave for Redhill. Fortunately, the nice people at Sky (see Stormtroopers in Transit) let us use their staff room and free drinks machine. On the same industrial estate there were a couple of interesting businesses: Bristol Cars and a large classic car dealership. So I had a wander round and took some photos. There were some interesting cars outside the classic car dealers but loads more inside but I couldn’t get in (they must have known about me). Had to make do with a couple of shots from the doorway.
Delivering an Audi A6 Avant 2.0TDi last week completed my driving CV as far as large, executive German estate cars is concerned (I had already driven the Mercedes E220d estate and BMW 520d Touring). All two litre diesels with 190hp or so and automatic gearboxes. So how was the Audi? In short, it was classy, comfortable and a very refined motorway cruiser (apparently it has “acoustic glazing”). It is marginally more refined than the Mercedes and perhaps more noticeably so than the BMW but in the great scheme of things they are all quiet and comfortable compared to many (mostly cheaper) cars.
All three cars have smart, high quality interiors with the Mercedes being the most extravagant and futuristic. Mercedes even give you a choice of two controllers for your “infotainment” system. On the console between the seats, a touchpad affair curves up and over the alternative rotary dial. For some reason the whole arrangement reminds me of the USS Starship Enterprise. The Audi’s dashboard is more down to earth and understated although it does have the novelty of a touchscreen that pops up out of the dashboard upon start up and which tucks itself away at the journey’s end. On a spectrum from classy understatement (Audi) to space age tech (Mercedes), the BMW is probably in between.
Whichever criterion you use to compare these three cars, you are generally talking about narrow margins. Except when it comes to weight where there is a significant difference between the lightest (BMW) and heaviest (Mercedes). The lighter weight boosts BMW’s “Ultimate Driving Machine” claims and the 5-series does feel as if it “fits” around you more than the Audi and Mercedes do. Serious motoring journalists will tell you that the BMW is more of a driver’s car. But if you are not interested in tearing round corners as fast as possible, the Audi will get you up and down the country more comfortably and more quietly. And the Mercedes will carry more golf bats/garden rubbish/flat pack furniture/mothers-in-law in the boot than the other two. For such large cars, you should get impressive fuel economy on a long, steady motorway journey – 55 to 60mpg. I have managed this in both the Audi and Mercedes, but have not had a comparable journey in the BMW.
The advantage of the Audi for some (those who don’t care about having a “driver’s car”), will be front wheel drive. In extreme weather conditions, the Audi should be more sure-footed due to better traction with the engine turning the front wheels. In snow, Audi drivers will definitely feel a bit smugger than their BMW and Mercedes counterparts. Rear wheel drive cars can be a bit hopeless in the white stuff. Unless, of course, BMW and Mercedes drivers drive their cars backwards when it snows, thus converting them temporarily to front wheel drive. And why not? In these days of reversing cameras (which all three cars have), you can see where you are going on the touchscreen in front of you without having to look over your shoulder. Once you have got used to the rear wheel steering, you will be able to wipe the smug smiles off the faces of Audi drivers.
Of course the idea of facing backwards in a car and seeing where you are going via a TV screen is not unprecedented. In Gerry Anderson’s puppet-based science fiction TV series, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (produced in the late 1960s), Spectrum agents were doing this in their 8 ton, 200mph Spectrum Pursuit Vehicles. In fact the SPV had no windows at all. Dispensing with glass and having driver and passengers face rearwards were important safety features. Captain Scarlet was frequently having to plunge his SPV through hay bales, barriers and five bar gates in Spectrum’s battle to save Earth from those dastardly aliens from Mars, the Mysterons. Like every other self-respecting 10 year old growing up in the mid 1970s, I had the Dinky version of this very cool car (or rather, primary armoured interceptor ground vehicle). This model car and the Corgi James Bond Aston Martin DB5 are probably the greatest ever die cast model cars. In the UK. In my opinion. Discuss.
The Dinky model imitated the “real” SPV by having a rocket that fired from underneath an opening bonnet, caterpillar tracks that dropped down at the back and, by pushing a button on top of the car, the side door slid out and lowered a miniature Captain Scarlet to the ground. Actually, the door pinged out at a rate of knots and dropped the good Captain like a small stone in very jangly fashion. Now those caterpillar tracks would be a great addition to the Merc and BMW for dealing with any tiresome snow………
In Gerry Anderson’s television world, SPVs were hidden around the globe in disguised buildings so that they could be quickly accessed by Spectrum agents. Now what a barn find one of these beasts would be! By the way, if you watched Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons as a kid, did you realise that the puppets were never seen to walk? I didn’t! I only found that out many years later. They cleverly managed to get the young viewer so absorbed in the story and other action that this minor detail went unnoticed. Gerry Anderson’s puppets were seen to walk in the earlier Thunderbirds but that was thought to be too unrealistic.
So which of the above cars is the best? If you found the odd £37 to 39k down the side of the sofa, which should you buy? Well, I’m not going to tell you. That’s because they are all very good. Which of these you would choose depends on what you want from your large executive estate and where on the sporting-luxury spectrum you want to be. If you want to hammer round corners and really feel a part of your car, you would choose the BMW. For those who want the most overtly luxurious and high tech of the three and/or the maximum golf bat carrying ability, it’s the Mercedes. The Audi is for the person who likes classy understatement and getting on with life quietly, very quietly.
And which one would I have? Well, that’s easy. The SPV of course.
Audi 6 Avant SE Executive 20.TDi S Tronic: 0-60mph, 8.5 seconds/190bhp/combined mpg, 64.2/boot (rear seats up) 565 litres.
BMW 520d Touring SE automatic: 7.8 seconds/190bhp/65.6mpg/560 litres.
Mercedes E220d Estate SE 9G-Tronic: 7.7 seconds/194bhp/67.3mpg/640 litres.
Our break in Suffolk plus the Friday bank holiday meant little time for work!:-
Wednesday: Volkswagen Jetta GT 2.0TDi, Leicester to Northampton
Thursday: Audi A6 Avant 2.0TDi Ultra SE Executive S Tronic, Leicester to Wakefield; BMW 520d Estate Auto (2013), Wakefield to Leeds.
First “normal” Audi A6 I have driven (apart from the bonkers A6 Allroad BiTurbo). Very nice. Might have to be a full post about that in due course. After dropping off the BMW at an auction site in Leeds, I made my way to the train station where I had a bizarre exchange with a member of staff. The full story of that will definitely follow at some point.
In last Tuesday’s post, I described a very pleasant drive through beautiful Suffolk. However, the route I described was outside the officially beautiful part of Suffolk! The whole of the Suffolk coastline is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and justifiably so. I exhausted my meagre descriptive capabilities in Tuesday’s post so here are some photos. These include a couple from Ickworth House, near Bury St. Edmunds, which we visited on our way home; still in Suffolk but not in the AONB. One disappointment was not being able to get to Orford Ness, a shingle spit shrouded in military mystery from both hot and cold wars. It was the birthplace of radar in the 1930s, for example. It is now a National Trust nature reserve but you can only access it by ferry which only starts running this weekend!
I once deep-fried my right hand. I mentioned this in my first ever cooking post, a now legendary thesis on couscous viewed by tens of people. Since then, I have been asked what on earth was I trying to do. Was I attempting to push the boundaries of cuisine to encompass the truly weird and wonderful, 30 years before Heston Blumenthal had been invented? No, of course not. It was simple stupidity. I was in my last year at school and had yet to take my A-levels so I was officially unintelligent.
One Friday evening I was left to my own devices to cook my dinner. My device of choice was an electric deep fat fryer which I realise now had a serious design defect. As I remember it, there was no handle or other obvious means of lifting the lid. So, having let my chips (or “fries” for my international audience) fry for several minutes, I then wanted to see if they were ready to eat. The fryer had an internal wire basket which you could raise and lower and that basket (unlike the lid) had its own detachable handle. Holding this handle in my left hand, I used one end to poke the fryer’s lid half open. With my right hand I operated the mechanism to raise the internal basket and then put my hand in to grab a chip to taste. I know, I know, this was not the cleverest thing to do. And to think of the millions of pounds the British taxpayer had spent on my education up to that point. Whilst my right hand was under the half raised lid and whilst I was focusing on retrieving a chip to sample, my left hand was not really concentrating on its lid lifting responsibilities. The end of the makeshift lid prop slipped from the edge of the lid whose rather hot underside fell onto my right hand. “Ooh ow!” I said. Or words to the effect. Of course my natural instinct was to withdraw my trapped hand PDQ but the fryer was not going to let its prey go that easily. Result: the fryer and its boiling contents rushed rapidly towards the edge of the kitchen counter. I now had a split second to make a decision. Continue to withdraw my hand and allow the fryer to crash to the floor and spew its scalding, oily contents everywhere? Or keep my hand in the jaws of Hell and use a combination of my body and my left hand to check the teetering fryer’s descent and shovel the whole thing back on to the counter?
Now let me explain something (sorry if the suspense is killing you …). I am not one of life’s heroes. In fact, I am made of 70% afraidium and 30% lily liver. Once, on a business trip to China, I saw a table showing the Western calendar year of my birth to be the year of the dragon. Pretty cool, I thought. Until I realised my birthday (being in January) is just before the Chinese New Year, so I was actually born in the previous Chinese year: the year of the rabbit. How very fitting. I never got into fights at school because I always ran away like a frightened bunny at the first hint of trouble.
So the decision was obvious, wasn’t it? Yes, I gallantly rescued the fryer from its fall, leaving my hand inside and prolonging the agony. WHAT?! WHY???! Well, let me take you into the mind of an eighteen year old male for a moment. A grim prospect I know, but focus on the matter at hand and don’t look in any dark places. You see, the notion of cleaning up a kitchen floor awash with cooking oil and half cooked chips is something that the teenage male of the species just could not countenance. In fact, cleaning anything (including himself) is abhorrent to a young male of that age. These instincts were easily strong enough to overcome the instincts of a raging coward.
Finally, I extricated my wilting and somewhat scarlet hand from the infernal machine. That night in the pub, I ordered a pint of bitter to hold in my left hand and a pint of iced water to hold my right hand. Fortunately, not too much damage was done. I think the basket of chips saved me from the worst that the hot oil could do. You will be pleased to hear that a few months later I passed my A-levels and I have never deep-fried either of my hands since. Just goes to show what a good education can do for you. (I frequently try to cook my hands by other methods but I will leave those tales for another day.)
A SIMPLE DIP
Having read the above, you may think that the simple dip mentioned in the title is me. That would be understandable but no, I’m going to leave you with the simplest idea for an absolutely moreish dip which is a little bit different. Thanks to my sister for this treat. Making it is not only easy but it is absolutely pain free. Get a small tub of soft cream cheese like Philadelphia or a supermarket equivalent. The low fat versions do the job. Turn it out onto a small plate and pour over some sweet chilli dipping sauce. That’s it! If you are out to impress anyone and convince them you are truly exotic, sprinkle over some chopped coriander leaves (over the dip, not yourself although I suppose it depends on how exotic you want to appear). Fresh coriander leaves are called cilantro in the US; travel, like A-levels, is an education but much more fun.
Whether con cilantro or sin cilantro, simply dig in with your favourite dipping implement (now, now, titter ye not). My dipworthy snack product of choice would be a humble wholewheat breadstick. Mix up the sweet chilli sauce with the cheese as you go and you will find it delicious, creamy and cool. In fact, if you have recently scalded your hand it would probably make a delightfully soothing salve…..
We have just come home after a short break – two nights in a wonderfully wonky and beamy old apartment above a bistro in Framlingham in Suffolk (look up Upstairs@The Lemon Tree if you are interested). The design brief for this higgledy-piggedly bijou dwelling was obviously that there must be no vertical or horizontal lines or surfaces. It was all very quaint and special. Framlingham is a small, characterful market town where Ed Sheeran was lucky enough to grow up and we were literally a couple of hundred yards from Framlingham Castle, the “Castle on the Hill” of his recent, autobiographical hit.
Getting there was quite special as well. Or at least the latter part of the journey was. It was last Sunday and the warmest, sunniest day of the year so far. Going down the M1 from Leicester and then east along the A14 was routine (i.e. dull) but trouble-free. Then we turned off at Stowmarket and followed the A1120 which was actually sign-posted as a tourist route. And what an absolute treat it was. A great road to drive and beautiful scenery to go with it. Now we are not talking spectacular mountain passes, hairpin bends, majestic lakes, the Serengeti or anything seriously dramatic but rather picture postcard England at its very best.
The part of Suffolk we saw is not like its East Anglian neighbour Norfolk, with its flat, sometimes featureless landscape and straight roads and ditches. No, Suffolk’s landscape undulates as English countryside should and is broken up by hedgerows, trees and church spires aplenty plus the occasional windmill. And the A1120 twists, dips and turns sufficiently to keep you on your toes a bit. Despite the tourist route tag, we hardly encountered any traffic to hold us up as we swept along past so much green, interspersed with splashes of white and pink blossom and bright yellow rape. All that colour was complemented and enriched by a totally clear, bright blue sky. Between villages, the A1120 allows you to flow pleasingly through the bends before having to slow down to pass through the small pockets of rural civilisation. But slowing down to a relaxing bumble is not just a legal necessity. A gentler pace allows you to drink in the charms of each little village. There were several picturesque places to pass through, each eliciting so many oohs and aahs from my wife and daughter you would have thought the route had been lined with the world’s cutest puppies. “Ooh, look at that.” “Aah, isn’t that lovely…”. And there were many adorable buildings, a lot of them pastel coloured or rusty old brick, some thatched and all seemingly well cared for despite their age. Each village had its fair share of chocolate box pubs too, some with people sitting outside making the most of the fine weather. All very tempting. With the sun working its magic and those time-warped villages casting their spell, it was all very beautiful, transporting you in more ways than one such that nothing else in the world seemed to matter. A journey to take your cares away – except the niggling concern that we may encounter Ed Sheeran driving at 90 down that particular country road in the opposite direction. After all, sing Tiny Dancer too heartily at that speed and who knows what might happen – could be messy.
Actually, later in the day we thought we had encountered Ed Sheeran in the equally picturesque (but rather overcrowded) seaside resort of Southwold but it turned out to be a bloke holding his candy floss in front of his face.
In all, it was 26 miles along the A1120 from Stowmarket to Yoxford before we joined the A12 to carry on to Southwold. With all the villages en route, I guess those 26 miles took the better part of an hour but it was not a journey to rush unduly. It would have been wonderful in my Austin-Healey Sprite and sensational in one of these old Lagondas that we encountered the following day (all 1930’s I assume; I am not an expert). But even in our everyday Skoda Octavia estate the journey was hugely enjoyable. Away from the A12, there are many great country roads in that part of the world so the driving enjoyment did not stop at the end of the official tourist route.
After Southwold, we stopped at a much quieter Dunwich Heath to do a bit of beach combing before going on to Framlingham to find our accommodation and have a quick stroll around the town. It had been a wonderful but exhausting day so we eventually climbed thankfully up to bed. Not up any stairs you understand, we just had to scale the floor of our wonky apartment.